Playlist Project | Sylvie Simmons: Americana

Americana: The Wild and Twisted Present and Past of Country Music

Sylvie Simmons, Music Journalist

Country music has its roots in acoustic African American blues and gospel and the folk and traditional dance songs that crossed the Atlantic with English, Irish, and Scottish settlers. The recording industry, in its early days, separated the two strands into ‘hillbilly’ and ‘race records,’ but deep down they remained entwined, and like a giant tumbleweed, began to snare up all manner of music, from Cajun to cowboy ballads, from ranchera to Western swing, with songs that were equally at home on the land, on a back porch, in church, or in a bar.

These days country sounds less rural than suburban, reflecting the changing times. It's often rock musicians—many of them working on the margins more than in the mainstream, who are exploring the roots of country music, its instruments (banjos, fiddles, mandolins, pedal steel), its themes (love, lonesomeness, and hard living) and its straightforward, honest style. And this is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Bob Dylan duetted with Johnny Cash, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt band recorded with Mother Maybelle Carter Earl Scruggs in the ’60s, each decade has brought its own wave of country revivalist. The ‘country rock’ and ‘outlaw country’ movements of the ’70s gave way to the post­punk 'roots rock' and 'insurgent country' of the ’80s, followed in the ’90s by a vast number of diverse artists given the label 'alternative country'. With the new millennium came a movie called O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), which launched the movement into the stratosphere, spawning a new, thriving genre 'Americana.'

Sylvie Simmons is a London-­born, San Francisco-­based music journalist. A widely regarded writer and noted rock historian, she is one of very few women singled out in the predominantly male rock elite.

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